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Poisons, pumped down here at enormous pressure, had oozed deep into the water table. The seamy stone was warped and twisted. All around her, toxin miners scuttled like crabs.
The toxin miners pried the poisoned rock apart, slurped up toxins with busy hoses, then deftly reassembled the stifling walls in a jigsaw mess of glue. In their exoskeletons and filter suits, the miners looked like construction cranes wrapped in trash bags.
The miners were used to their work and superbly good at it. They measured their progress in meters per day. They were subterranean bricklayers. Cracking blocks and stacking blocks: that was their very being.
Vera thought longingly of glorious light and air at the island’s sunny surface, which, from the cramped and filthy depths of this mine, seemed as distant as the surface of Mars. Vera had made it a matter of personal principle to know every kind of labor on the island: forestry, reef restoration, the census of species . . .
These miners had the foulest, vilest redemption work she’d ever seen. The workers were a gang of grimy, knobby ghosts, recycling sewage inside a locked stone closet.
Her helmeted head rang with a sudden buzz of seismic sensors, as if her graceless filter suit were filled with bees. Tautly braced within their shrouds and boneware, the miners studied the tortured rock through their helmet faceplates. They muttered helpful advice at each other.
Vera loaded the mine’s graphic server. She tapped into the augment that the miners were sharing.
Instantly, the dark wet rock of the mine burst into planes of brilliant color-coding: cherry red, amber yellow, veins of emerald green . . . A dazzling graphic front end for this hellhole.
Using their gauntlets, the miners drilled thumb-sized pits into the dirty rock. They plucked color-coded blasting caps from damp-stained satchels at their waists. They tamped in charges. Within a minute came the blast. Vera, sealed within her suit and padded helmet, felt her teeth clack in her head.
With a groan and squeak of their boneware, the miners wrestled out a cracked slab the size of a coffin.
A stew of effluent gushed forth. The bowels of the Earth oozed false-color gushes of scarlet and maroon.
“You can help me now,” Karen beckoned.
Vera chased the software from her faceplate with a shake of her head. Vera’s sensorweb offered sturdy tech support to anyone who might redeem the island, but the mediation down this mine was in a terrible state. These miners were plumbing the island’s bowels with bombs and picks, but when it came to running their everyware, they never synchronized the applications, they never optimized the servers, they never once emptied the caches of the client engines. Why were people like that?
Badly encumbered by her filter shroud, Vera clambered to Karen’s side through a cobweb of safety supports. The carbon-fiber safety webs looked as useless as dirty gossamer. Strain monitors glowed all over them, a spectral host of underground glowworms.
Vera found her voice. “What do you need me to do?”
“Put both your hands up.
Here. And over there. Right. Hold all that up.” Vera stood obediently. Her exoskeleton locked her body tight against the ceiling.
Karen’s boneware creaked as she hefted her power drill. She studied the rock’s warping grain through the mediation of her faceplate, whistling a little through her teeth. Then she probed at a dripping seam. “This part’s nasty,” she warned.
Her drill spewed a tornado of noise. Vera’s guts, lungs, and muscles shook with the racket. It got much worse as Karen dug, jammed, and twisted. Within her boneware, Vera’s flesh turned to jelly.
Karen handled her massive drill with a dainty attention to detail, as if its long whirring bit were a chopstick.
Gouts of flying rock dust pattered off Vera’s helmet. She twisted her neck and felt the helmet’s cranial sensors dig into her scalp.
Two miners slogged past her as she stood there locked in place, hauling their hoses and power cables, as if they were trailing spilled guts. They never seemed to tire.
Stuck in her posture of cramped martyrdom to duty, Vera sourly enjoyed a long, dark spell of self-contemplation.
Like an utter idiot, she had allowed herself to be crammed into this black, evil place . . . No, in a bold gust of crusading passion, she had grabbed her sensor kit and charged headlong down into this mine to tackle the island’s worst depths. Why? To win some glow of deeper professional glory, or maybe one word of praise from her boss?
How could she have been that stupid, that naive? Herbert was never coming down here into a toxin mine. Herbert was a professional. Herbert had big plans to fulfill.
Herbert was a career Acquis environmental engineer, with twenty years of service to his credit. Vera also wore the Acquis uniform, but, as a career Acquis officer, Vera was her own worst enemy. When would she learn to stop poking in her beak like a magpie, trying to weave her sensor-webbing over the whole Earth? Any engineer who ran a sensorweb always thought she was the tech support for everything and everybody. “Ubiquitous, pervasive, and ambient”—all those fine words just meant that she would never be able to leave anything alone.
No amount of everyware and mediation could disguise the fact that this mine was a madhouse. The ugly darkness here, the grit, the banging, grinding, and blasting, the sullen heat, the seething damp: and the whole place was literally full of poison! She was breathing through micropored plastic, one filmy layer away from tainted suffocation.
Stuck in her rigid posture of support, Vera gazed angrily through the rounded corners of her helmet faceplate. Nobody else down in this mine seemed at all bothered by the deadly hazards surrounding them.
Was she living an entirely private nightmare, was she insane? Maybe she had been crazy since childhood. Anyone who learned about her childhood always thought as much.
Or maybe her perspectives were higher and broader and finer, maybe she simply understood life better than these dirty morons. Stinging sweat dripped over Vera’s eyebrows. Yes, this ugly mayhem was the stuff of life for the tunnel rats. They had followed their bliss down here. This hell was their homeland. Fresh air, fresh water, golden sunlight, these were alien concepts for them. These cavemen were going to settle down here permanently, burrowing into the poisonous wet and stink like bony salamanders. They would have children, born without eyes. . .
“Stay alert,” Karen warned her. Vera tried, without success, to shrug in her locked exoskeleton. “Work faster, then.”
“Don’t you hustle me,” said Karen merrily. “I’m an artist.” “Let’s get this over with.”
“This is not the kind of work you can hurry,” said Karen. “Besides, I love my drill, but they built it kinda girly and underpowered.”
“Then let me do the drilling. You can hold this roof up.”
“Vera, I know what I’m doing.” With a toss of her head, Karen lit up her bodyware. A halo of glory appeared around her, a mediated golden glow.
This won her the debate. Karen was the expert, for she was very glorious down here. Karen was glorious because she worked so hard and knew so much, and she was so beloved for that. The other miners in this pit, those five grumbling and inarticulate cavemen banging their rocks and trailing their long hoses—they adored Karen’s company. Karen’s presence down here gave their mine a warm emotional sunlight. Karen was their glorious, golden little star.
There was something deeply loathsome about Karen’s cheery affection for her labor and her coworkers. Sagging within her locked boneware, Vera blinked and gaze-tracked her way through a nest of menu options.
Look at that: Karen had abused the mine’s mediation. She had tagged the rocky cave walls with virtual wisecracks and graffiti, plus a tacky host of cute icons and stencils. Could anything be more hateful? ]
A shuddering moan came from the rock overhead. Black ooze cascaded out and splashed the shrouds around their legs.
Karen cut the drill. Vera’s stricken ribs and spine finally stopped shaking.
“That happens down here sometimes,” Karen told her, her voice giddy in the limpid trickling of poisoned water. “Don’t be scared.
” Vera was petrified. “Scared of what? What happens down here?”
“Just keep your hands braced on that big vein of dolomite,” Karen told her, the lucid voice of good sense and reason.
“We’ve got plenty of safety sensors. This whole mine is crawling with smart dust.”
“Are you telling me that this stupid rock is moving?”
“Yeah. It moves a little. Because we’re draining it. It has to subside.”
“What if it falls right on top of us?”
“You’re holding it up,” Karen pointed out. She wiped her helmet’s exterior faceplate with a dainty little sponge on a stick. “I just hit a good nasty wet spot! I can practically smell that!”
“But what if this whole mine falls in on us? That would smash us like bugs!”
Karen sneezed. All cross-eyed, she looked sadly at the spray across the bottom of her faceplate. “Well, that won’t happen.”
“How do you know that?”
“It won’t happen. It’s a judgment call.” This was not an answer Vera wanted to hear. The whole point of installing and running a sensorweb was to avoid human “judgment calls.” Only idiots used guesswork when a sensorweb was available.
For instance, pumping toxins down here in the first place: that was some idiot’s “judgment call.”
Some fool had judged that it was much easier to hide an environmental crime than it was to pay to be clean. Then the Acquis had arrived with their sensorweb and their mediation, so everybody knew everything about the woe and horror on this island. The hidden criminality was part of the public record, suddenly. They were mining the crime. There was crime all around them.
A nasty fit of nerves gathered steam within Vera. She hadn’t had one of these fits of nerves in months. She had thought she was well and truly over her fits of nerves. She’d been sure she would never have a fit of nerves while wearing an Acquis neural helmet.
“Let me use the drill,” Vera pleaded. “This drill needs a special touch.”
“Let me do it.”
“You volunteered for mine work,” said Karen. “That doesn’t make you good at it. Not yet.”
‘We learn by doing,’ ” Vera quoted stiffly, and that was a very correct, Acquis-style thing to say. So Karen shrugged and splashed out of the way. Karen braced herself against the stony roof.
Vera wrapped her arms around the rugged contours of the drill. Her boneware shifted at the hips and knees as she raised the drill’s tip overhead. She pressed the trigger.
The drill whirled wildly in her arms and jammed. All the lights in the mine went out.
Vera’s exoskeleton, instantly, locked tight around her flesh. She was stuck to the drill as if nailed to it.
“I’m stuck,” she announced. “And it’s dark.”
“Yeah, we’re all stuck here now,” said Karen, in the sullen blackness. Toxic water dripped musically.
“I can’t move! I can’t see my own hands. I can’t even see my mediation!”
“That’s because you just blew out the power, Vera. Freezing the system is a safety procedure.
” An angry, muffled shout came from another miner. “Okay, what idiot pulled that stunt?” Vera heard the miner sloshing toward them through the darkness.
“I did that!” Vera shouted. In the Acquis, it was always best to take responsibility at once. “That was my fault! I’ll do better.”
“Oh. So it was you? You, the newbie?”
Karen was indignant. “Gregor, don’t you dare call Vera a ‘newbie.’ This is Vera Mihajlovic! Compared to her, you’re the newbie.”
“Well, it’s a good thing I still have charge left in my capacitors.”
Karen sighed aloud in the wet darkness. “Just go and reboot us, Gregor. We’ve all got a schedule to meet.”
“Please help me,” Vera begged him. “I’m stuck here, I can’t move!”
“You’ll have to wait for a miracle, stupid,” said Gregor, and he left them there, rigid in the darkness.
“You made Gregor angry,” Karen assessed. “Gregor’s our very best rock man, but he’s not exactly a people person.”
Vera heaved uselessly against the silent pads and straps of her dead exoskeleton. Her boneware, which gave her such strength, grace, lightness, power, had become her intimate prison.
“Who designed all this?” she shrieked. “We should have power backups! We should have fuel cells!”
“Be glad that we can still hear each other talking.” Karen’s voice sounded flat and muffled though her helmet and shroud. “It’s too hot down here to run any fuel cells. Gregor will reboot us. He can do it, he’s good. You just wait and see.
” A long, evil moment passed. Panic rose and clutched the dry lining of Vera’s throat. “This is horrible!”
“Yes,” said Karen mournfully, “I guess it is, pretty much.”
“I can’t stand it!”
“Well, we just have to stand it, Vera. We can’t do anything but stand here.
” Claustrophobic terror washed through Vera’s beating heart.
“I can’t do it,” she said. “I can’t bear any more.”
“I’m not scared,” Karen told her. “I used to be very scared every time I came down here. But emotion is a neural state. A neural state can’t touch you. I’m never afraid like I used to be. Sometimes I have fear-thoughts, but my fear-thoughts are not me.”
Karen’s voice was full of limpid sympathy. “You can scream, then. Do it. I’m here for you.”
Seen from the airy hilltop, Mljet was a tattered flag, all bays, peninsulas, and scattered islets. The island’s scalloped shores held stains in their nooks and corners: the algae blooms.
The rising Adriatic, carrying salt, had killed a dry brown skirt-fringe of the island’s trees.
The island’s blanket of pines and oaks was torn by clear-cut logging, scarred black with forest fires.
And if the golden shore of this beautiful place had suffered, the island’s interior was worse. Mljet’s angry creeks had collapsed the island’s bridges as if they’d been kneecapped with pistols. Up in the rocky hills, small, abandoned villages silently flaked their paint.
Year by year, leaning walls and rust-red roofs were torn apart by towering houseplants gone feral. The island’s rotting vineyards were alive with buzzing flies and beetles, clouded with crows.
A host of flowers had always adorned this sunny place. There were far more flowers in these years of the climate crisis. Harsh, neck-high thickets of rotting flowers, feeding scary, billowing clouds of angry bees.
Such was her home. From the peak of the island, where she stood, throat raw, flesh trembling, mind in a whirl, she could see that the island was transforming. She could hear that, smell it, taste it in the wind. She was changing it.